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The Progress Report: The Anatomy of a Chronic Absenteeism Home Visit

The Progress Report is a monthly column where we’ll be examining how innovations in education are panning out and what lessons they may offer other San Diego schools and districts. 

Back in January, I attended a workshop at the San Diego County Office of Education. The atmosphere felt more like a pep rally than a stuffy seminar. Attendees arrived decked out in wolf hats, baseball uniforms and bright blue tutus. As the event’s emcee called out schools in attendance, staff whooped, whistled and cheered.  

“You’re probably wondering ‘how does this woman have so much energy in the morning?’ Well, I listened to DMX on the way here,” quipped Kirsten Grimm, an executive leadership coach for the county office. 

While attendees were all smiles, the reason for the workshop was no joke. This was an in-person training for the office of education’s Improving Chronic Absenteeism Network. Chronic absenteeism, which is when a student misses at least 10 percent of school days in a year, has skyrocketed in the years since the pandemic. Given that missing school is linked to all sorts of negative academic outcomes, and that school funding is also linked to student attendance, the rise has become a paramount concern. 

The 19 schools in this year’s group have seen that meteoric rise up close and personal.

The network functions as a sort of interactive toolkit, providing research-based strategies and support to school staff. But that suite of services doesn’t last forever. Each year, a new group of schools is chosen, leaving schools to continue the work themselves. That task was on the mind of staff from City Heights’ Fay Elementary, who were dressed in matching powder blue shirts emblazoned with the school’s dolphin logo. 

How schools have approached the challenge differs. Many have worked hard to foster a welcoming environment on campus or create special events for students who meet attendance goals. That includes Fay. The staff has taken a beating in the name of attendance, allowing kids to pelt them with pies, douse them with water and spray them with silly string at events meant to make kids excited about coming to school. 

But no school in the group has prioritized home visits quite as much. 

By that seminar, Fay had conducted 158 home visits, just over half of the total number conducted across the entire network. By the end of February, the school had tacked on 11 more. 

What is a home visit? Chronic absenteeism isn’t a new issue, and neither are strategies to curb absences. Home visits at their simplest are exactly as they sound: a visit to the home of a child.  

Research has shown that home visits can have a significant impact on rates of chronic absenteeism, though no educational intervention is a panacea. Generally, however, because they are a more labor-intensive tactic, their use is surgical and restricted to students missing the most school 

But like with anything, an educational intervention is only as effective as how well it’s being implemented. 

The Changing Tone of Home Visits 

Education in recent years has become more holistic, with educators being more upfront about what’s long been known but more rarely addressed: what happens outside of schools impacts what’s going on inside of them. 

Kevin Welner, the director of the University of Colorado’s National Education Policy Center, said it plainly when I spoke to him about what could be learned from the success of another City Heights school, Edison Elementary: “We can’t kneecap kids in their lives outside of school and deprive them of stable housing, security and health care and then expect schools to step in and make everything okay.”    

That openness to see what happens inside of classrooms as, at least in part, a reflection of what happens outside of them has informed strategies like developing community schools, which offer added supports and resources to students, and the often-connected thinking about a whole child approach to education.  

The thinking is that if schools can help even the starkly uneven socioeconomic playing field outside of the classroom – whether through food pantries, medical care or even on-campus laundry services – it may help cut back some of the ugly disparities that manifest inside the classroom.  

Home visits, too, have incorporated this thinking. In the past, much of the work of increasing attendance skewed in a punitive direction. Things like home visits were almost like getting called into the principal’s office, if the principal made house calls. These were also commonly done by truancy officers.  

Now, they’re more likely to be done by people students may trust and have more concrete relationships with, like counselors and teachers. And instead of harshly worded letters or disciplinary actions, those doing the visiting may come with resources like bus passes to help kids for whom transportation may be an obstacle, or even new backpacks. The goal, like with community schools, is to help address some of the underlying reasons kids are chronically absent in the first place. 

Fay’s staff is explicit about their effort to infuse the home visits they’ve performed with care. 

“Increasing the lines of communication, I think that’s the biggest thing,” said Emilee Gilbert, Fay’s counselor. “We’re trying to message to families that ‘we worry about your student when they’re gone. We miss them when they’re gone.’”  

The home visits work isn’t a one-person job. The school often breaks up into teams of two, with the district’s family services assistant and the school’s SAY San Diego representative, a nonprofit working to provide resources to students, tagging along. Daniel Castillo, Fay’s community schools coordinator, often leads one of those teams. Fay is one of the San Diego Unified schools to receive the community schools designation in recent years. 

“We’re trying to connect with the parents and make sure they understand that we’re here to support … not to get you in trouble, but to be a friendly face and a helpful hand,” Castillo said.  

That often means coming with resources, or at least links to resources. Between the community schools program and SAY San Diego, that may mean bus passes, clothing, food, housing resources or even help with internet costs. 

“The best strategy is just to get parents to collaborate with staff. We’re a team, parents the school, and can collaborate to make sure students are really engaged in school,” Castillo said. 

Though it can’t necessarily be explicitly tied to home visits, it seems like the work the staff at Fay has put in is paying off. At the end of last February, the school’s chronic absenteeism rate was 36 percent. The staff set a goal to decrease the rate to 22 percent by the end of the school year. But by the end of this February, they’d already decreased it to 20 percent. 

That warmer, gentler approach is also echoed in guidance from the network itself. Todd Langager, the county office’s director of implementation, improvement and impact, described the network’s approach to home visits as being almost like a patient intake being performed by people with background knowledge about a student and access to a variety of resources that may come in handy for a family. The goal, he said, is to figure out “how we can build a relationship first, in order to get a child reengaged with school?” 

“What often happens on those home visits, is they say ‘alright, what are the family’s needs? And then what can I either directly provide or leave with them? Or who can I connect them with to give them the support and services that they need?’” Langager said. 

Still, he said more work can be done to ensure that home visits don’t end up feeling like a “gotcha,” for families whose children may be missing school. That may mean scheduling a meeting in an effort to make it feel less like an ambush, he said.  

Gilbert echoed that, saying that even though they’ve tried to approach with care, their visits aren’t always well-received. That’s understandable, after all, it seems pretty natural to get a little bit freaked out when suddenly staff from your child’s school come knocking.  

“But we try to make it as positive as possible. There’s this paradigm shift of away from a punitive model of home visits to pairing it with really fun events …  so it’s nice to be able to say, ‘yes, we’re doing our job and holding families accountable, but we’re also making school fun,’” Gilbert said. 

And they have worked to make school fun. The day before my visit, they’d taken students who met a certain attendance benchmark on a field trip to the Ruben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park. 

Gilbert said one of the 47 students they’d brought told a teacher it was the best day of her life.  Another told Gilbert “This is awesome. I’ve never been to a science museum, but I want to be a scientist.” 

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